Hard Questions About the Big Easy

The New Orleans disaster could yet change American politics?but only if we keep talking about it.

As the New Orleans disaster recedes from the headlines, citizen activists
face a choice. We can focus exclusively on other newer issues. Or we can
work to make the disaster one of those key turning points with the potential
to transform American politics. For this to happen, we need to consciously
create new dialogue, reaching well beyond the core converted.

If we think back to the 9/11 attacks, which have shaped American politics
ever since, a brief window of critical reflection opened up in their
immediate wake. Middle East experts critical of U.S. policies had op-eds in
our largest newspapers and appeared on network TV. Ordinary citizens mourned
the victims, while asking what would make the attackers so embittered they’d
be willing to murder 3,000 innocent people. The next day, when I spoke about
possible root causes, with even more frankness than usual, at a community
college in the overwhelmingly Republican suburbs just north of Dallas, the
response was amazingly receptive.

But by a few weeks later visible public questioning had largely ceased. Most
Americans accepted the Bush administration’s definition of a war of absolute
good versus absolute evil. John Ashcroft warned that anyone who disagreed
was an “ally of terrorism.” The space for reflection had closed.

New Orleans has revealed far too much about the cost of this
administration’s priorities to similarly strengthen Bush’s current standing.
Republican cheerleaders are trying their best to spin its lessons as a
mandate for even greater mistrust of all government, as if our sole hope
lies in a survivalist individualism. But no matter what they do, the legacy
of this disaster creates a political liability for this administration,
highlighting their lack of sound environmental policies, support for
critical infrastructure, and the valuing of experience over political
cronyism, not to mention their heedlessness of America’s growing economic
and racial divides. The danger is that the disaster’s most far-reaching
lessons will be quickly forgotten, as the voices of the city’s exiles grow
quiet and fresh crises and issues dominate the news.

We can change that by helping our fellow citizens wrestle with the legacy of
the disaster
while it remains strong in common memory-to give it its due as one of those
iconic moments with the power to transform political life and individual
hearts and souls. For now America is still wrestling with what happened and
why, with what it will mean for those now exiled, with how the disaster
affects our common future. From my own recent talks in the heart of red
state America, the disaster has led many to begin to rethink core
assumptions about this country’s priorities. Through the lens of New
Orleans, I’ve been able to raise all sorts of challenging issues to
audiences that would have been far more resistant just a few months before.
But like the post-9/11 reflection, this newfound concern won’t continue
automatically. It needs a context in which to bloom.

Some of this is already being created, as we weave lessons from the disaster
into arguments we’re already making on issues from global warming to the war
in Iraq, to the dangers of selling America’s every institution to the
highest bidder. But the tragedy also calls for specific responses. Suppose
progressive citizen activists worked to convene conversations in every
community about Katrina’s lessons and legacy. These conversations could
include MoveOn and The Sierra Club and local social justice groups, but also
mainline and conservative churches, synagogues and mosques, civic groups
like Rotary and Kiwanis, maybe even Chambers of Commerce-as many
institutions of civil society as would be willing to participate. Suppose
every college or high school made New Orleans a focus over the coming year,
working, from the perspective of every possible discipline, to explore the
interconnected roots and lessons of the disaster.

After 9/11, author Vicki Robin and some colleagues created what they called
“conversation cafes” (www.conversationcafe.org), which brought together
people of differing beliefs to reflect on how to move forward from the
tragedy. Though their outreach was relatively limited, the cafes offered a
powerful experience for those who participated, and a model to build on.
Imagine if we extended these conversations on a broader scale, mixing
brainstorming, exchange of perspectives and emotional sustenance. In a time
when it’s easy to feel overloaded, paralyzed with “compassion fatigue,”
Robin sees a chance to create “containers where people can grieve, process,
see deeper truths, have new creative ideas.”

Another model comes from community discussions that transformed Nebraska’s
tax codes forty years ago. In the early 1960s, a group of University of
Nebraska economists used the University’s statewide network of adult
education extension offices to organize workshops, county by county, where
people could discuss different ways to make a highly regressive state tax
system more fair. The existing system had long weighed disproportionately on
family farmers and low-income residents. Now, involving local organizations
such as the Farmer’s Union, Farm Bureau, and the Grange, the economists
invited people to see for themselves how a range of approaches would affect
them and their neighbors. “If people just really had a chance to look at the
numbers,” one of the faculty members recalls, “we felt they could come to an
intelligent decision. But they had to have a context to analyze the system,
and this seemed a perfect use of educational networks that were already in

The workshop leaders pursued their task without laptops, computerized
spreadsheets, interactive Websites, or any of the other tools that would now
make a comparable process far easier. But participants examined who was
getting a free ride, how to make the system more equitable, and the likely
results of specific policy changes. Local and statewide media amplified the
debates. It took a half-dozen years of follow-up education and debate, but
Nebraska finally passed a far more progressive graduated income tax, which a
Republican governor signed into law.

The issues embodied in Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans are more
difficult than a single state’s tax codes, but could be addressed through a
similar process of discussion exploring a series of interconnected
questions: What are the costs of neglecting America’s core infrastructure,
like the Bush administration’s $71 million cuts in the budgets for
maintaining and repairing the levees? How do we challenge a pervasive
cronyism, where being the friend of a top Republican fundraiser places the
former head of the International Arabian Horse Association in charge of
America’s national disaster responses? What are the hidden costs of choices
of destroying swamps that traditionally acted as buffers to tropical storms?
How do we address America’s widening economic and racial divides, embodied
by those left behind in the rising floodwaters? How do we rebuild a
devastated New Orleans in a way that it won’t just get flooded again, while
honoring the right of return for those outside the sleek tourist zones? At
what level of disaster do we take seriously the costs of global warming, and
begin joining other nations in acting on it? Can we do any of this while
giving $120 billion a year in tax cuts to the wealthy and fighting a $100
billion-a-year Iraqi war? And how can we keep our hope for change alive in a
time of so much disaster and human pain?

The US has never faced the comparable destruction of one of our major
cities, so we’re all in new territory. We need to resist Bush administration
proposals to lift wage and environmental protections, give no-bid contracts
to companies like Halliburton, and pay for rebuilding by slashing other
social programs like Medicare, Medicaid, child welfare programs, and student
financial aid. But if we’re going to have a chance of succeeding in offering
more proactive alternatives, we’ll need to involve some of those ordinary
and often apolitical Americans who watched in horror as the floodwaters

We could complement the more intimate discussions with visible public
forums. During the height of the nuclear arms race, Physicians for Social
Responsibility scheduled multi-day forums throughout the country to focus
public attention on the nuclear threat. They involved a variety of high
profile speakers, including Nobel laureates, talking about the impact of the
nuclear arms race attack from every perspective they could muster–the
likely immediate death toll in the wake of a nuclear attack, technological
escalations that were reducing the margin for human error, the arms race’s
economic cost, and alternatives for de-escalation. The events mobilized
large numbers of citizens and got major media coverage wherever they were
held. They played a significant role in challenging the arms race.

We could adopt a similar model around New Orleans. Create a tour with
high-profile experts on global warming, the politics of infrastructure,
America’s economic and radical divides. Include voices from the city and
those now exiled. Challenge Americans to think again about why the disaster
happened, and what how we can best proceed in its wake.

We could also use the wake up call of the disaster to take a similar
approach with one of the most difficult challenges it raises-the impact of
global warming. Focusing just on that one overarching issue, we could hold
high-profile local forums about the increase in extreme climate events like
hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts and forest fires; about impacts on
public health through the migration of disease-carrying insects like the
mosquitos that carry West Nile virus; about the impact on agriculture of
changing weather patterns. These could feature scientists, journalists,
religious leaders, businesspeople like alternative energy experts or
representatives of insurance companies increasingly hit by climate-related
property casualty losses. The goal would be to use the window of concern
opened by Katrina to foster serious discussion in communities that aren’t
normally exposed to it.

Finally, we can complement local conversations with coordinated national
discussions. As David Dyssegaard Kallick writes in The Nation, New York City
citizen groups came together in the wake of 9/11 to create the Labor
Community Advocacy Network to Rebuild New York (LCAN). Their members met
among themselves to determine their joint priorities, then pushed, with some
success, for more equitable directions for post-9/11 reconstruction. (Their
suggestions for the displaced Gulf Coast communities are available at
www.goodjobsny.org) Major labor, environmental and social justice groups
could similarly meet and talk out issues like where to generate the funding
for reconstruction, how to balance protection against future floods with
rebuilding the devastated communities, how give displaced residents the
maximum possible voice. The more we can clarify our own priorities, the more
effectively we can articulate them to others.

We tend to think of crises as highly visible calls to action, but real
crises build up in the shadows. They’re revealed when clear disaster strikes
or when citizens succeed in sufficiently dramatizing their impact on the
public stage. Legal segregation was a daily crisis if you were African
American, but not if you were white-until activists made it visible. The
poisoning of our environment was unnoticed until ordinary citizens raised
hard questions. Few talked about the destruction of America’s infrastructure
until the water from Lake Pontchartrain spilled over the levees. What we do
from this point forward will determine whether the underlying crises that
created and compounded the New Orleans disaster get addressed.

If we reach out broadly enough, progressive activists wouldn’t control the
direction of the resulting conversations, but we’d have a chance to talk to
others of differing views and reflect on our own. From my experience, the
disaster has opened up a space where citizens ordinarily resistant to key
questions about our nation’s direction are suddenly far more receptive.
Whether that opening leads to a new wave of citizen engagement or closes
with distraction and time depends on the opportunities for reflection and
participation we can create.